Unblock Us

by Stubborn Mule on 18 September 2011 · 14 comments

A few months ago, I complained that more and more online music sites have blocked access from Australia. Of course, the arcane licensing of intellectual property has also led to many other sites being blocked for Australians. Anyone living down under trying to access BBC TV via their iPlayer, or trying to stream US TV on Hulu will find themselves out of luck. The list of sites offering movies, TV shows and music online is a long one. The list of these available in Australia is a very short one.

However, I have now discovered a Canadian company offering one way out of these geographic shackles. For US$5 per month, Unblock Us will allow you to configure your computer or router so that, when you try to access a selection of media sites, your connection will pop out from a server outside Australia so as to ensure you will not be blocked from accessing the site.

But is it legal? That’s an excellent question, and one I do not know the answer to. Not being a lawyer, I will not even speculate. Where I am happy to speculate is on the question of the ethics of the site.

On Friday, a colleague said he was planning to watch a downloaded movie over the weekend. I asked him where he had downloaded it from. While he said he had bought it from the iTunes store, he did indicate that was not the only place he had downloaded movies from over the years. His philosophy was always to try obtaining movies legally first but if—and only if—all legal means failed, he would resort to shadier sources. To me, this seems like a fair approach, legal or not.

As I would be more than happy to pay the copyright holders for access to e-books, online music or videos, I find it extremely frustrating when this is impossible, simply because I am in Australia. In the absence of such legal means, loopholes like Unblock Us start to look very appealing.

There are a couple of other considerations before leaping in to using the service:

  • Privacy: since your internet requests would be initiated through Unblock Us, you would have to be comfortable with them knowing about the pattern of your internet usage, although they do note on their site ” will not actively monitor user activity for inappropriate behavior, nor do we maintain direct logs of any customer’s Internet activities”.
  • Performance: having the extra check for each internet request to see whether it should be bounced through Unblock Us could make your internet performance a little slower than going directly through your ISP. I do not know whether this would be significant.

I am certainly tempted.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Danny Yee September 19, 2011 at 2:52 am

This cuts both ways. You can’t access BBC iplayer content from Australia, but I can’t access ABC video from the UK.

2 Stubborn Mule September 19, 2011 at 6:19 am

@Danny: and for a while, Spotify was not available in the US (still not available here). I’m not sure whether Unblock Us would give you access to ABC iView.

3 Carol September 19, 2011 at 7:43 am

BBC iPlayer is actually unavailable anywhere outside the UK, including other EU countries – so don’t feel singled out there. The same with Pandora which became available only in Nth American some years back just when I was using it regularly (from Europe). Unblock Us sounds like it’s an ip address masker – those things have been around for years. Of course it’s not legal to use it to download something that’s only available in another country. The ip address is a very simplistic way to tell which country you’re in but it’s about all these services can reliably use, and the legality is tied to your country not your ip address.

To echo Danny – I got very furstrated some years back when the Telstra website would not even let me *buy* australian music from Europe! They’d sell me a CD, but download was blocked.

Obviously the whole situation is ridiculous and these companies are clinging as hard as they can to their old distribution monopolies. However with no real way to apply copyright standards globally I expect we’ll be stuck with these weird measures for some time yet.

4 Stubborn Mule September 19, 2011 at 8:31 am

I imagine you’re right about the legality, but I’m not sure about who would be the main target. From what I understand, the targets in file sharing suits have been people who have made downloaded tracks available to others (even if the initial download was illegal too). So for streaming would the target be Unblock Us or the end user. The interesting thing here is that, while you’re right that IP address hiding services have been around for ages, Unblock Us has the model of doing it selectively just for specific media sites. Does that make them more vulnerable?

5 Zebra September 19, 2011 at 9:48 am

Another that is very good is utorrent (mu-torrent) for about the same price. You could argue that you used an anonamiser to stop your IP address being recorded by cyber crims or oppressive governments. IS that illegal? If a side-effect of that is you are no longer barred from some websites then how are you to know that? In any event you can get access to BBC iPlayer but not Hulu which recognises anonamisers and bars you anyway. Or so I have heard.

BBC iPlayer could do the same thing but don’t. BBC et al are not telling you it’s illegal for you to download their free content but that it is illegal for them to allow you to. Maybe it’s the Beeb who are breaking the law for not taking sufficient precautions when Hulu can and do? It seems though that it is the US with their vast army of underemployed media lawyers who are most worried about this issue.

6 Isaak Dury September 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I’m a bit like you’re friend, i want to do the right thing asa long as its a fiar price and easily served up.
I love my spotify account, simply obtained by using daveproxy, a uk post code and a mate in the uk… Shame These haven’t released in Australia, certainly the future of music. Looking forward to a movie equivalent!

7 dan September 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm

“you would have to be comfortable with them knowing about the pattern of your internet usage” … isn’t that pretty much the case the minute you open your computer or turn on your phone these days? Your ISP, your Telco, your place of employment, your local Starbucks, your kids, your nosey partner who checks your browser history, your neighbour who piggybacks off your wifi, your friendly local law enforcement officers (and the ones you don’t even know about), your own personal spybot hacker… all pretty much know about the pattern of your internet usage…

8 Stubborn Mule September 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm

@dan you are absolutely right…so it’s more a matter of how comfortable you are adding one name to the list of people or organisations who know what you are up to. Seems a small price to pay for music liberty!

9 Matt Sayer September 28, 2011 at 1:56 am

It’s called shame avoidance.

Like the self serve checkouts – an I quote from Fairfax – “..have you ever found yourself staring at one of the increasing number of self-service screens, with $15 in your pocket and the temptation to put your $13.98-per-kilo* lady fingers through as $4.98-per-kilo turnips?”

The problem is in the licensing.

The line between what is right and wrong is so blurred these days thanks to the net that the powers that be must revisit how remuneration is distributed to the content copyright owners.

A typical user can jump on yootoob, create a playlist of content that appeals, press play and enjoy the various audio levels and quality that ensues. No questions asked. Latest songs ready to go.

In the same breath, we as uses can justify that something is not convenient enough to do something the right/legal way – just like your friend who professes a desire to do the right thing until doing that right thing is not a valid option to get the content he/she wishes to consume.

And so I suggest smarter people than myself come up with some carbon-tax wizard style formula; and tack onto peoples public IP connectivity access bill; a fee, say proportional to the data that individual traffics. These fees rollup, similar to the license models for playing the radio in a work office with over x number of people; and that these royalties are passed back to the content owners.

I know it sounds utopian, But modern history illustrates clearly that if there is an attempt to stop/restrict IP in the digital world with a smarter lock it is a FACT that it will eventually be broken.

This because breaking encryption represents a challenge to some gifted few.

If you put this ISP license/royalty then we stop this mess of infringement litigation that only makes the fat cats even richer. The people are able to then consume cross borders, and we will be done with this discussion.

/my2cents

10 Stubborn Mule September 28, 2011 at 8:39 pm

@matt I completely agree that we need a new approach to licensing. I am only too happy to pay for online media content: what frustrates me is that there does not seem to be any legal avenue open to Australians. I think that some form of subscription service is the way of the future and in fact more money could be raised for artists that way. Just think of how many people get a mobile phone or pay TV and, while they may shop around for a deal to start with, barely notice their automatic monthly payment once they’ve signed up. Paying, say, $10-$20 each month to have access to any music I would like to stream strikes me as a bargain even though it’s been some time since I would have spend that much on CDs each month.

11 Brendon September 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Stubborn,

Sony’s cloud music streaming website ‘Music Unlimited’ has been available for months in Australia. It’s legal, sony signed deals with all major record companies to allow their music to the site.

$12.99 a month, a library of 7 million songs with more albums added daily. I joined months ago and love it.

12 Stubborn Mule September 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

@Brendon: the Sony offering looks good (although I hope they do a bit better with their security), but I will hold out until they are able to stream over my Squeezebox.

13 Scott October 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Sorry about posting to a dead thread, but another solution, for about the same price is the Tunnelbear VPN client for Windows and Mac.
Once it’s installed (no configuration needed), it sends all traffic from your machine through an encrypted server in either the US or the UK (you literally set a dial to select which region).
It does have an impact on transfer rates, but I think it’s worth it.

14 Will August 2, 2012 at 1:18 am

This issue is on my mind now because I live in the US and do not have cable. So I came across an article that describes how to use Unblock Us as a method for viewing BBC coverage of the Olympics (on lifehacker.com). But I have this nagging feeling that it may be illegal… So I found your post in a Google search. It is still so murky.

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